hyundaiAleague_4063I’ve been following football in Australia and New Zealand since the early 90’s and, in this age of mass satellite TV coverage, watch the UK feed for the Hyundai A-League as shown by BT Sports.

It’s fair to say that the Hyundai A-League has morphed into a very solid league with a good fan base and solid franchises. Yes, there have been exceptions to that rule. North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United have both fallen by the wayside. New Zealand Knights of Auckland were closed down and relocated to that country’s capital to become the Wellington Phoenix. In the main, crowds are steady, franchises are secure and playing standards have consistently improved.

A-League Criticisms

There are criticisms of the league though. Some argue that 10 teams is not enough and wish to see expansion. There are certainly valid arguments for this. If we look at the similar model of MLS in USA / Canada, expansion has been a gradual but very healthy development. Said league began with just 10 franchises and now operates double that number. There are also another three confirmed clubs to join in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Minneapolis / St. Paul. The league also experienced growing pains. Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Rowdies were both cut from the league, the latter having only played for four seasons.

Certainly, it’s no good expanding the A-League if sound ownership is not in place. There is no point in expanding for the sake of having a few more teams on the ladder. Certainly, there are cities and towns in both Australia and New Zealand (I believe NZ’s club future lies in the A-League as per my previous article here) that will argue they have been unfairly overlooked in favour of putting two teams in the cities of Sydney and Melbourne.

Whilst every league thrives when there is a local derby rivalry to be had, one might be able to sympathise with the cities left out of the process. Without doubt, Sydney and Melbourne are both capable of hosting more than one club in the A-League, but is it at the expense of taking the game to new markets around both countries? Indeed, there has even been talk recently of a third franchise being granted in Sydney. This looks to be primarily related to the northern suburbs where the old NSL side, Northern Spirit, once commanded high attendances at the North Sydney Oval.

Another criticism that has been levelled at the A-League is the lack of promotion / relegation. To be fair, this is not an easy thing to incorporate into a burgeoning competition such as the A-League. Many fans of the old NSL clubs have lamented the fact that their sides do not have a pathway into the highest division in the land. Many of those involved in the A-League counter such arguments by stating that the A-League was created to take the sport to the “mainstream” and have no wish to return to the old ethnic rivalries of the former competition. Clubs of Greek, Croatian, Italian, Maltese, Serbian and Macedonian communities formed the bedrock of the old NSL and this did sometimes spill over into non-footballing rivalries.

Westfield_FFA_Cup_logoTo placate the state league sides who once played in the NSL, Football Federation Australia (FFA) introduced the FFA Cup which is modelled along the lines of the famous FA Cup in England. Clubs from the state league get the opportunity (should they progress far enough) to pit their talents against those of the A-League clubs, giving them the chance of a cup upset.

The cup competition was launched in just 2014 and has already proved a success and seen upsets take place. The competition also has a solid sponsor in the shape of Westfield behind it, creating the incentive of prize money for clubs to play for, besides prestige and a shop window.

So what about the large numbers of clubs or cities that are unrepresented in the new mainstream setup in Australian and New Zealand football?

A-League 2

One way to allow expansion and introduce the promotion / relegation concept into the A-League setup would be to create an A-League 2. Japan introduced a similar concept when the JFA created the J-League 2 to operate under its new professional top-flight. The Australasian equivalent would remain run by the A-League setup but could perhaps command a slightly lower franchise fee for new setup clubs.

Rather than introduce the older ethnic-based clubs that competed in the NSL, it could provide the opportunity for those cities that have thus far missed out on A-League entry. It would give them the opportunity to compete in a fully professional second tier. It would also introduce the mainstream game to other parts of Australia and New Zealand.

Let’s say that there are 8 teams to begin with in the second tier. Each team would play the others three times in the regular season. The top side could automatically replace the bottom A-League 1 side, with the 2nd placed A-League 2 side playing-off home and away against the 9th placed A-League 1 side for the right to compete in the top tier. Some cities or towns that could possibly be included might be:

Canberra

Canberra UnitedThere have been many advocating the entry of the Australian capital into the A-League. The city has an ideal facility in Canberra Stadium and there is clearly an appetite for professional football in the capital. The Socceroos met Kyrgyzstan in Canberra in November of this year and drew in just shy of 19,500 fans. There is also the fact that the city has a successful W-League side in Canberra United and the support of former Socceroos and Matildas players such as Ned Zelic, Carl Valeri, Amy Taylor and Amy Chapman.

Some may point to the Canberra Cosmos from the old NSL as a side that failed to draw on the city’s football supporters, but with the A-League proving to be a very different beast, any new franchise that was set up in the city would undoubtedly attract a far greater following.

Wollongong

Another city with potential and a footballing pedigree. Fast growing Wollongong is another city of 300,000-plus people and was home to the old Wollongong Wolves side in the NSL. It has a facility in the 23,000 capacity WIN Stadium and a large population from traditional football-loving countries such as the UK, Macedonia, Portugal, Croatia, Chile and Greece. With the old club now re-Christened as South Coast Wolves, it’s even possible that a new club wouldn’t need to be formed.

The city has produced some fantastic Socceroos over the years such as Scott Chipperfield and Mile Sterjovski and is also home to one of Tim Cahill’s youth coaching academies.

Geelong

With Melbourne often referred to as Australia’s sporting capital, it’s quite easy to forget that just across Port Phillip Bay and Corio Bay lies another Victorian sporting hotbed in Geelong, a city of 200,000 inhabitants. Despite being overlooked in the old NSL, Geelong has a footballing heritage primarily in state competitions but has produced the likes of Josip Skoko (via the North Geelong Warriors) and Steve Horvat for the national setup.

The city possesses Simonds Stadium (below) which has a capacity of just over 34,000 people, and would provide any football franchise with a class facility to use as a home base. The added excitement of possible derby games against the two A-League clubs from Melbourne would also surely have crowds turning up in large numbers. Indeed, Melbourne Victory have already played at the facility when they took on Perth Glory in the A-League during the 2014-15 campaign.

Skilled Stadium Geelong
Skilled Stadium, Geelong

Hobart / Launceston

Tasmania is another destination that has been linked on more than one occasion with expansion in the A-League. Australia’s southern most state has two cities with which it could host A-League football – Hobart and Launceston both having 20,000 capacity stadiums and the necessary infrastructure for visiting teams and fans. There is also the possibility (much to the chagrin of purists) that a new side could use both cities as a base, giving the entire state a chance to see professional football.

From previous Tasmania bids for an A-League license, it would appear that there is sufficient financial backing within the state and a definite will to make A-League football happen. Perhaps “A-League 2” would be a perfect starting point for the sport on the island?

Darwin

Another territory that was forever missed out of the old “National League” in Australia. The Northern Territory has always had to make do with competition within its own borders but would it have what it takes to support an A-League 2 franchise?

Certainly one stumbling block might be lack of a suitable facility. The only stadium which might be considered appropriate for A-League football would be Marrara Oval, which is primarily for AFL and Cricket. That said, it has all mod cons and would create a comfortable venue for supporters. The purists may cringe at the amount of space between a football pitch marked out on the surface and the grandstands though.

Logistics wouldn’t be a huge issue for the city. There is the international airport which allows easy access for opposition players and fans, as well as the usual hotel chains. There is even a ready made training facility in the shape of the Darwin Football Stadium. Due to a 6,000 capacity, it would almost certainly not be up to standard for A-League football matches, despite once playing host to a Pre-Season Cup game between Perth Glory and Melbourne Victory.

TIO Stadium Darwin
TIO Stadium / Marrara Oval, Darwin

Sydney

OK, so I am loathe to include a third team in Sydney before most cities even have one, but there has been a lot of noise lately about such a possibility, as stated earlier in this article.

There is no doubt Sydney could host a third A-League team quite comfortably. If that team were to start in a new “A-League 2”, it would also up the ante in the second tier.

Let’s assume the rumours of a new franchise going to the city’s northern suburbs are correct. There is certainly a large catchment area to draw support from. As Northern Spirit showed in its infancy, give the fans a decent product and they will pay their money. The North Sydney Oval could still be used as the new club’s facility and has indeed been used to host an A-League game between Central Coast Mariners and Wellington Phoenix.

It’s an area of Sydney that the Central Coast Mariners have earmarked for future “home” fixtures too and so there is no reason that a new club could not survive in the area. However, as previously stated, whether it is right to saturate one city before others even get a single taste, is open to debate.

Auckland

OK, so stop the groaning. New Zealand’s largest city had its own franchise at the beginning of the A-League’s existence and failed miserably. When we say, failed, we mean in every department. Ownership wasn’t right, the squad wasn’t competitive and the crowds decided not to back a failed product. Nobody has the divine right to think fans will just back their city’s side – they have to be given a professional operation to rally behind.

One of the major issues faced by the old New Zealand Knights was that they played at North Harbour Stadium. Having lived in Auckland myself, I know how difficult it is to get to that facility from anywhere south of Auckland Harbour. A new Auckland franchise would undoubtedly require a more central stadium such as Eden Park or possibly even Mount Smart Stadium. Eden Park is central and also accessible by public transport for those without cars or not looking to drive to games.

Auckland’s population is over 2 million and the city has a large population from the UK, Croatia and also Asian countries such as South Korea, China and Japan. Many of these folks love their football if only they’re given a half-decent product to follow.

Football is currently very much a semi-professional sport in Auckland and, while the likes of Auckland City and Waitakere United have performed admirably at the World Club Championships, a full-time side with a competitive squad and good marketing would surely succeed in the City of Sails?

Christchurch

Another city in New Zealand that loves its football and has even shown up en-masse for Wellington Phoenix games played there. Over 19,000 rocked up to the city’s AMI Stadium for an A-League fixture with Perth Glory in 2010, proving that there is a market in the city of close to 400,000 inhabitants.

Due to the tragic earthquake that hit the city, the old Jade Stadium is no longer in use but a suitable alternative could be AMI Stadium (aka Rugby League Park), with a capacity of 18,000.

Christchurch has produced several high profile All Whites over the years, none more so than Ryan Nelsen. The city would provide a great base for an A-League 2 side and could also act as a beacon of professional football for the entire South Island of New Zealand. There is, for example, no reason the odd game couldn’t be taken to Dunedin’s superb Forsyth Barr Stadium to help spread the word and expand the fanbase beyond Christchurch’s borders.

AMI Park, Christchurch
AMI Park, Christchurch

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong. It’s easy for me to sit here behind my computer, give you a list of a few cities and say, “That one could host a franchise. It’s certainly got the facility and population for it.” Those criteria aren’t good enough alone. There needs to be sound and dedicated ownership with a commitment to developing the sport in their chosen area. Football is not a sport where owners make millions – it usually requires them to have very deep pockets and a love for their club or sport that nobody from outside would understand.

I also understand that there are other cities which I haven’t mentioned which are also possibilities. Townsville (once home to the NQ Fury), Cairns, Ipswich, Fremantle, Hamilton and Dunedin could also be mooted, for example.

Some may argue that to have a second division would dilute the player pool too much. On a personal level, I’d disagree with that. Both countries are producing more and better footballers than ever before. Programmes are in place for youth football across both nations and many youngsters are just looking for that valid step up to the pro ranks when they hit their late teens, early 20’s.

But New Zealand and Australia are economically developed countries with superb facilities and infrastructure. Football is huge in both countries, but there has often been the lack of a decent pathway into the top-flight in both sides of the Tasman. However as the game becomes more and more popular and the A-League grows and evolves, one wonders whether an A-League 2 might just work and add another dimension to the game. Because let’s face it, the thrill and / or tension of promotion and relegation, coupled with a mainstream professional product on and off the pitch, would be hard for many paying customers to resist.

by Paul Gellard